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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Aquinas and Grace

For years, Protestants have accused Catholics of propagating a “works-righteousness” that neglects the role of God’s grace, to which St. Thomas Aquinas quietly raises his hand and politely says, “Excuse me. I don’t mean to interject, seeing as I’ve been out of the conversation for quite a few years, but I couldn’t help overhearing your discussion. If I understood correctly, you said that Catholics don’t understand grace. Now, I don’t claim to speak for every congregant sitting in a pew during mass who claims to be Catholic, but I do believe I can address some of your concerns. Back in the 13th century, I wrote a little book called Summa Theologica that a lot of Catholics seem to think makes pretty good sense of what they believe and in it, if I remember correctly, I talked quite a bit about grace.

“Now, in talking about grace, I do think it is important to distinguish between humanity in its created state and its fallen state. Some of what I’ve heard you Protestants tell your children only makes sense of the fallen state, which is certainly important to discuss, but without talking about our created state, we cannot understand what who we are supposed to be, what it is we want our children to strive after when we teach them to obey. I want to be clear that we need grace in both conditions, but the grace that we need is different in each. God is the cause, the First Mover of all things, including goodness, and in both conditions we need him to be the First Mover of our own good works. The difference is really in how much moving God must do to turn us to good works.

“In our created state, once God got things started, we could see it all the way through to the end. We could perform the good he had given us to do and move past our nature into the fullness of Christian virtue. In our fallen nature, we can still attain the goodness that is a part of our nature, but we need a furtherance of God’s grace to move us beyond into moral virtue. Though in our fallen state we need more of God’s grace to move us, in both our fallen and created natures, we need grace in order to be moved to goodness. [1]

“Beyond requiring ‘more’ grace in our fallen state, we require a different kind of grace in order to obey God. In our created state, we needed God’s grace to help us obey his law in all of its fullness, to purify our motives so that we would not merely obey in action, but perform our acts of obedience out of love. God’s grace was required to finish our good works, but due to the fall, we now need God’s grace to not only finish our works, but to also heal our nature so that we might obey in the first place. [2] In our corruption we seek after our own private good rather than the goodness that is found in God, a proclivity we must be cured of before we can begin to obey. [3]

“Where I start to lose you is when I describe works as having merit. You begin to question if I am attributing too much to our efforts rather than giving God his due credit, a concern which I understand. Let me turn the equation around for a moment so that you can see the logic I am using. When you sin, you take the blame for it. You do not attribute it to your corrupted nature or some foreign pollution that you name ‘sin’. After all of those factors have been considered, you still are responsible for your actions. On the other hand, when you perform a good work, yes, it was by God’s grace, but you still performed it. It was your decision to do something that God deems acceptable and pleasing in his sight. My concern here is that you ought to receive both the blame for your sin and the praise for your good deeds, because you are responsible for them both. On the other side, you know that I am enthusiastic about attributing to God’s grace what belongs to his grace. So praise God for his mercy on you and take responsibility for how you live out the grace he has conferred on you.”

[1] See St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Q.109, A2.

[2] Ibid. Q.109, A4.

[3] Ibid. Q.109, A3.

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